A recent First District Illinois Appellate Court ruling in the case of Lara Stachler v. The Board of Education of the City of Chicago, 2023 IL App (1st) 221092, rejected the plaintiff-appellant’s assertion that the Illinois Human Rights Act entitles an employee to accommodations for pregnancy-related medical conditions even when the accommodation would preclude the employee from performing the essential functions of her job. The court further held that an employee must advise her employer when an employer-provided private room to breastfeed or express breastmilk is inadequate.
Upon return from maternity leave to her work as a speech-language pathologist with Chicago Public Schools, Stachler requested a private space for lactation at each of the three schools where she would be working. She also requested accommodations such as flexible hours to allow for lactation and the ability to work remotely when the students she taught were remote. After these requests went unanswered, Stachler requested an accommodation for fully remote work, which was denied. She and her supervisor subsequently met to discuss potential disciplinary issues, including Stachler’s attendance abuse. Several days after the meeting, Stachler requested an immediate leave of absence, which the Board agreed. Stachler then filed a lawsuit against the Board for violations of the Nursing Mothers in the Workplace Act (820 ILCS 260/1 et seq.) and the Illinois Human Rights Act (775 ILCS 5-1-101 et seq.).
In affirming the trial court’s dismissal of her complaint pursuant to 735 ILCS 5/2-619.1, the Appellate Court noted, “the Illinois Human Rights Act does not require employers to provide every possible accommodation or even the accommodations the employers insist they will provide; the act requires only that they must provide reasonable accommodation.” A reasonable accommodation is one that enables an employee “to perform the essential functions of her position,” which, in Stachler’s position, included the requirement of regular in-person attendance. The court further found that, although the Illinois Human Rights Act requires a private non-bathroom space for lactation that will accommodate an employee’s needs on a case-by-case basis, it is the employee’s obligation to inform her employer if she believes the provided space is inadequate. Stachler claimed the lactation rooms were too far from where she worked, but she never raised that issue with her employer. Her failure to report the inadequacy of the provided lactation rooms also doomed her similar claim under the Nursing Mothers in the Workplace Act. This ruling is a reminder to employers that the essential functions of the job can be used as a guidepost in determining what is a “reasonable” accommodation. Further, if a private and clean non-bathroom space is provided in reasonable proximity to the employee’s work area, the employer does not have to anticipate each employee’s individual lactation room needs, unless the employee makes a request for additional reasonable accommodation.
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